Heading into the 6th, and final stage of Ras na mBan I was 48mins 40secs down, and 39th on GC. I was also rather sore. This was the shortest stage in the race, and it only had one climb of note, Moll’s Gap. Moll is well known to the many who have tried their hand at the Ring Of Kerry sportive, it is a grand steady climb and presents little by way of a challenge when taken at a moderate pace. But with only 45 seconds separating the top 6 riders in the race, I had a feeling the pace might be a little above comfortable.

My resolution for the day was to finish Ras na mBan less than an hour down on the winner (I was 1 hour 40mins down last year), so I had just over 11 minutes to play with (hey, I was being good to myself, post-traumatic stress and all!). My hope for the day was to finish Stage 6 without losing any more time at all, and maybe even to move up the GC (I’d moved up one slot per day so far, in fact, if I could drag this race out for another 39 days I’d win the bloody thing!!). I’d also re-promised myself that I’d try to ride at the front as frequently as I could.

We lined out under Louis and Valerie’s watchful eyes, and Declan’s watchful ears (you know what I mean), one more time. We did our final ceremonial lap of lovely Sneem, and we were off…… out the road to Kenmare, ocean on our right, cheers on our left, motorbikes ahead, cavalcade behind. One last time girls, this time with feeling.

As instructed by Aidan, Charlotte attacked from the gun (well, the flag) and got a few to follow her…… exciting times!! The jersey holders and their teams were having none of it though and Charlotte was soon back in the fold. Then Ishbel, in her distinctive tartan kit, bounced off the front. She got out of sight in the twisty section and the bunch became uneasy…… bums lifted out of saddles, calf muscles flexed…..Race On!!!! We hurtled over the narrow bridge at 13km and up the rise beyond. We threw ourselves along the dead section of road between there and Kenmare. I know because I was at the front!! The very front most of the time in fact (and, eh, in the, eh, rather substantial wind actually. I would pay for this later), and I even attacked once, Really! I got a bit of a gap too (I would also pay for this effort, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth it). At one stage I looked to my left and saw my 3 team-mates across the front……. Cycling Leinster were setting the pace (yeah, yeah, pay for it later, blah, blah)!!!

We hit Kenmare and took the left turn that marks the start of the gradual climb to Moll’s Gap. As we rounded the corner I glanced back and realised that the speed we had set so far had taken its toll on tired legs; there were no more than 40 riders left in the bunch. As the road rose steadily so did the pace. Somebody was driving the front. This was the last chance there’d be to snap some elastic and shake up the top of the GC…..

I dug deep to stay near the front, and counted down the kms on my computer. C’mon Fi, hang in there. As the QOH came closer I started to slip. I put my head down and hauled on the handlebars. I heard the car engine behind and realised I was last man. I got out of the saddle and kicked on again, I got back on Trish’s wheel and tried to settle my breathing. We rounded the open right-hand bend two corners from the top and the pace went up again. A few more riders slipped by me, reversing. I dug deeper and tried to hold the back, ……but I was yo-yoing. One more kick up, one dropped wheel, and I’d be gone.

We rounded the penultimate turn and the crest of Moll’s Gap became visible, sweeping over to our left. I was exactly where I shouldn’t have been, ……I was at the back, ……. no, I was the back…… no, I was off the back. Crap.

“Number 5o loses contact with the bunch.”

….. Commissaire Car passes……. Neutral Service….. Medical Car…… (NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!)….. First Team Car…… Abergavenny car…… Look Mum No Hands….. Black Rose….. Team Ireland…… Aido & Tom….. Aido and Tom!!!! Brilliant!! Big shouts from the boys…… I jumped on the back as we came over the top, the bunch were still visible…… I heard Caroline shout “C’mon Cookie!!”….. I saw Peter, camera poised…… I pushed into the big ring….. Tom shouted at me “USE THE CARS!!!”. I knew what to do. There was a significant headwind as I started the descent, the only way I would ever get back to the bunch was to weave my way up through the cavalcade that had passed me so ruthlessly earlier, using the cars to shelter me from the wind. I’d seen this done a hundred times since Ras Mumhan, time to ride my ass off, again.

I heard Frank shouting at me from the Cycling Munster car behind me, I swung out right, off Aidan’s bumper and around by his window….. “DO IT!!!” he screamed. On, to the High Wycombe car, around it….. and then onto Gillian & Stuart’s bumper…. around them, and on to Black Rose…… bit of a tow from them (Thanks Aidan!!)…… around them….. and around Look Mum No Hands car…… Nearly there….. mouth hanging open, sucking the air in, must get on, everyone behind is watching, cars beeping their horns as I pass, letting the cars ahead know I am there, I know the radio call….. “Rider in the cavalcade”…… I’ve been in those cars. I’ve looked up the Start List to see what Number 50’s name is, I’ve rolled down the window and shouted him on…. “C’mon Gareth!” “C’mon Keith!” “C’mon Dave! You can do it, you’re nearly there!!”….. I’ve been in cars where we’ve cheered as we’ve watched that struggling rider make contact again. But more often I’ve seen them fail. When that happens we say nothing, we don’t look them in the eye as they slip by the second time, going in the wrong direction. Race over.

…… Abergavenny car…… Race Leader’s Team Car……. (Oh My God! I can do this!!) …… Neutral Service bumper, briefly…… around the Medical Car, hear a cheer from Conor and Paul….. Commisaire’s Car……. Whoooooo Hoooooo!!!!! ….*punch the air* …… “Number 50 is back in the bunch”.

And I stayed with them. All the way to the finish. I finished in the lead bunch of 29 riders. We raced the 58kms in 1 hour 42mins. I lost no time. NO TIME!! And I finished Ras na mBan in 34th place on the GC.



The Race Of Truth

This is for all of you, all of us.

Today I didn’t ride Ras na mBan, I rode my own race. I started out in Ras na mBan but after 10km another rider decided she liked the piece of road I was on a whole lot better than where she was, and in the blink of an eye I was face first into the ditch. In that brief moment of silence that happened as my body became separated from my bike, and I readied myself for the impact, I thought, “I just want to be able to get up and walk away from this”. Silence. Crash. Pain.

The bunch sped by, I heard Orla crying out my name. The cars sped by, I heard people calling to me. Then Tom & Aidan pulled up, and then Conor. Tom sorted my bike, Conor sprayed my cuts with something stingy, Thanks Conor, Thanks Tom, Thanks Aidan :-). But I just want to go guys, get me going, they’re all gone on, time is racing away from me…… And I was on the road again.

Crashing is part of racing, you have to learn to deal with it,  blame helps nothing, but I was mad. I turned the corner up to the first climb…….. no one. No one to be seen. Then it started to rain. 85kms of racing, including two Cat. 1 climbs, lay ahead of me and I was going to have to do it on my own. I was mad, and madness kept me going, and madness kept me sane.

Adversity means something different to everybody, and we will all face it someday. How we cope is a measure of nothing, but we must never give up. It will be very hard for some people to understand when I say that today was one of the two toughest days of my life. Nobody died, nobody is sick, nobody is missing. But I nearly broke today.

I felt like everything I came here to do was gone, like everything I’d fought to achieve all week had been whipped from in front of me. I couldn’t believe I had to race the toughest stage of Ras na mBan without the comfort of the bunch, without a single body to shelter behind, without my teamies and my buddies encouraging me. I pushed on, over the first climb, down the hairy descent. I came upon one or two other single riders, each fighting their own demons. We barely spoke, spent a minute or two together, and then I had to go. I was racing my own race and I had to do it at my speed and I had to keep going, and whatever had already happened, I wanted to do it as fast as I could. I wanted to get the hell out of there and the only way home was to pedal, to pedal as fast as I could.

I passed a few more lonely riders, heads hanging low, I went by without saying a word, we were like the last survivors leaving some doomed city and there was nothing we could do for each other. I battled on into the wind. The rain washed most of the blood off my legs, and it stung my face where it was scratched. The second Cat 1 loomed up before me. I could see it from some way off, like Mordor, a rising wall of stone. A few team cars were pulled in near the top, they had straggling riders out the road to encourage home. There were helpful shouts, and offers of bars and bottles, but I was in my own bubble now and nothing from outside could get in. I struggled up the wall, in my head I pictured the day The Ras went over The Mamore gap. I remembered how the guys had described it, sometimes you felt like you were moving so slowly you would surely fall over. Flat on your side, onto the road, bike and rider still conjoined.

I crested the top and turned into a stronger wind. Still 70km to go. And now The Suffering really started.

I told myself I couldn’t keep doing this. I told myself I could. I looked down at my speedo and I promised myself I’d keep it above 4okmph, then I’d be home in an hour and a half. I pushed up into the big ring and I pumped the pedals up and down, up and down, as if they were solely responsible for moving the blood through my heart; if I stopped I would die. If I stopped I would die.

I thought about many things. I thought about my club mate Jim Fitzpatrick who is doing the race around Ireland right now……. he is racing all around Ireland Fi, you only have to race 60 more km, no, 50 now….. I thought about my team-mate Caroline who had been so sick this morning that she almost didn’t start, then she got so weak on the first climb that she had to get in the car. I thought of my good friend Anne who was so ill that she hadn’t kept any food down since dinnertime yesterday, yet she togged up and presented herself at the start line, so that her team would be in with some chance of keeping the Team GC they’ve held since Stage 1. I thought about all the girls out on the road today, ahead of me and behind, every one of them fighting the good fight…… 40km to go now.

I thought of the night I’d climbed Kilimanjaro, everyone around me on their hands & knees retching and hallucinating because of the altitude, and my friend and I pushed on & up; we’d come here to do a job and we’d be damned if we didn’t finish it….. 30km to go now. I thought of The Paralympians; if amputees can cycle competitively what have I got to moan about. I thought about The Cycling Leinster Team I have had the privilege to be part of this week, this was for them, for Aidan, and for Tom, for Charlotte and Niamh and Caroline and Orla, and for Mags who had pulled us all together…… 20km to go Fi.

I thought about everyone everywhere who has gone to the edge and not jumped.

I know some people will read this (I’m assuming someone other than me will read it…..) and not understand. But trust me when I say that part of me died out there today. Tomorrow I am racing home.

Strawberry flavoured cement

Well the highlight of  Stage 4 today was without doubt all the school children out waving An Post green flags at us (it was like following The Ras all over again!). We started at Sneem National School this morning and every child was out waving and cheering us. There were big shout outs for Louise (Moriarty), “Number 37!! Number 37!!!” and she high-fived the whole school, to great applause, before we rolled out.

Then all along the road, and all around Valencia, every school we passed, flags and cheers, brilliant. I wish I could have waved back at you all, and I did my best, but I was hanging a bit kids, sorry. You cheered us up and lifted our spirits no end though, Thank You lots! And thank you teachers too!!!

And the stage? Well, I can’t deny that I am happy without how it went for me. It was windy out there, and it was no day to get caught out on your own (my abiding memory of this stage last year was being in a small group stranded out on the long bleak road from Valentia back to Sneem, it was windy, it was wet, we were down, it was a long day….). Most of the bunch stayed together today, over Coomaciste, out to Valentia, and around the island,……. and I stayed with them 🙂

Then on the last climb the pace kicked up and a few of us lost contact. We chased down the descent, I looked around me, there were about 10 of us, including my team mates Charlotte and Caroline. We could still see the back of the bunch, and there were only 5km to go, so we re-grouped and up-and-overed, and we definitely minimised our losses. We could see the lead group crossing the line just ahead of us, and as we sprinted in we can’t have been more than half a minute behind them, success (well in my book anyhow)!

Every time I race I learn something new. But there are lots of things I know about cycling that I don’t implement, and the biggest of these is eating on the bike. I am crap at it. I carried two gels around every stage of Ras na mBan last year, the same two gels, they had a great time. I have retired them now. I have been known to carry a bar on a 160km cycle and never even contemplate eating it. I mostly rock in from the end of  a stage with my two water bottles as full as they were at the start line (I call this weight-training, others call it stupid; and they’re right). I’d totally planned to get on top of this issue long before Ras na mBan rolled around again. But I didn’t.

Anyhow, this week I have been better. Stage 1, ate nothing, drank most of one bidon. Stage 2, TT, nothing needed. Stage 3……. well, once I was out there on my own I practically booked a table. I ate everything I could find in my pockets, anything to make the time and the kms pass. Today, by the time we’d climbed Coomaciste and hit the halfway mark I still hadn’t eaten. Then Charlotte appeared beside me like a nutritional angel. “Fiona, have you eaten? We still have 40km to go. Eat a gel, now!”. So I did. I pulled it out of my pocket during a lull in proceedings, I bit the top off and spit it out like a pro (and a litterbug, sorry) and I squeezed it into my mouth. Strawberry flavoured cement. Yum. I washed it down with a gulp of water and thanked Charlotte. And I did all this while holding my line and not even feeling nervous; it can be done Fi, cop on.

I am lying on the floor in Room 217 now, waiting for my leg rub from Carl. Orla is on the table chewing her wrist so she won’t scream……. it’s possible that this hurts more than the racing……. I’m up next, eeeek!!!!



Fiona against Fiona

After a sleepless night (cursing my failure to check last night’s post was saving as I typed) I really wasn’t feeling it at breakfast this morning. I plugged myself in and ran a few tests. A bit of self analysis produced a result. So, at our pre-departure to Kenmare, Team meeting I decided to come clean. Everyone here is a little afraid of something (aren’t they??), well maybe it’s not always fear, maybe it’s just anxiety. Afraid of being killed (really), afraid of descending, afraid of climbing, afraid falling/being injured, afraid of failing, afraid of not being good enough. Well team, manager, ….my name is Fiona and I’m afraid of being dropped. Death does not scare me at all, no siree.

And you know what? It’s not because I think for a second that if I could stay with the bunch I’d be in contention at the finish (I am not in that league), no, it’s because after you’re dropped on stages like today there are long bleak periods out on that road when it’s just you. I’m afraid of being dropped because than I have to face myself, and race myself. Fi against Fi. Not my favourite thing.

Well, so much for if-you-say-it-out-loud-it-won’t-happen theory.

I got to face my fears a little earlier than I’d hoped for today. I’d had it in my head that I could cope with being spat out the back on the Healy Pass. We rolled out of the Sailing Club (had a brief stop to re-group after a timpiste in “neutralised zone”) I stayed in the top 12 or 15 riders out the road, and most of the way up Knockanoughanish, but I started slipping down the bunch as we came close to the top, I just seemed to be reversing….. I could see the top, if only I could just…… no. But they were right there, I could catch back on!

Aside: I have absolutely no clue why the above script just changed!! And I can’t fix it, sorry!

I killed myself (metaphorical use; things aren’t that bad) to chase back on, the rain was lashing down, the road was river-like, the Commisaire President car passed me, then a team car, I threw myself around the twisty corners of the descent, if I could just make that  narrow left turn before the ascent…… another team car passed, as I came around each corner at crazy-speed I could always see the back of the bunch snaking around the corner ahead…… another team car passed….. things seem to stall a little, I shot out to the right and passed that team car back….. on around the corner, no white line….. oncoming bus pulled in in front of me, ….quick check, yup, I can make that gap (in reality, my glasses were so drenched in rain and mud that I could barely see a thing, sorry road safety people.)…… I slipped through the gap between the team car ahead and the front of the bus, just. I could see the bunch right there, right there, sweeping around that tight lefthand corner, the rain was getting heavier, everything seemed to be closing in around me as we made our way through that heavily tree-lined approach to the start of the climb…… come on Fi!

As I rounded the bend, reluctantly using my brakes to avoid the back of the only team car between me and the commisaire’s car, and the road started to rise,……. I knew I used too much in my chase, my lungs were heaving (Anne, just then I would have sold my soul for your extra 30%!) and I had to just suck it up. Dropped. Team cars pipped their horns and passed, plenty of  “C’mon, dig in!”, and encouraging words as they rolled up along side. But as I came out from the tree-lined part of the climb, and the mountain road opened up in front of me, even though I could see them all, snaking their way up the rising roads ahead, I had to accept that The Race had moved on, alive in it’s bubble, and it had left me behind.

I didn’t give up though. I kept a steady rhythm going and recovered a bit on the climb, the random cheering bystanders all helped. And I channelled part of some well-meaning advice from a “Man of the Ras”, if you get dropped “make sure that you take in the scenery because it is actually stunning down that part of the world!”, I did look around me,…… waterfalls everywhere, misty drizzly green-ness, things tourists can’t believe we don’t appreciate a lot more,…… Kerry is beautiful, thanks Brian! I caught onto a small group, including two of my fellow Cycling Leinster teamies, I lost them again, I caught on again. We kept each others spirits up, and we kept the pace up as best we could. Our group of 5 eventually crossed the line 18mins down on the front group. Ho Hum.

And as it turned out, I didn’t have to spend too long on my lonesome, dealing with my own back catalogue of crap. Fi against Fi will have to wait for another day.

It’s nearly time to bail into the dining room in very disorderly manner, so I’ll wrap this. Overall I’m now just under 20mins down, this time last year I was probably twice that. And I’ve moved up to 41st spot, a small victory in the fight against The GC!

@01min 44 sec

Wow. Clare Dallat who won this evening’s Ras na mBan TT did the 3.4km almost one whole minute…. ONE WHOLE MINUTE….. over 3.4km…… faster than me. I know this is not the end of the world, but really, ONE WHOLE MINUTE (almost)……. I was killing myself Clare, what in God’s name were you doing???? Probably not stuffing your face with banana bread earlier today anyhow.

Since doing team support for the first time at Ras Mumhan at Easter…..

Okay, so it’s nearly midnight, Niamh & Charlotte will tell you that I spent most of my evening writing the post that started with the above paragraph. Little did I notice though that the wifi connection had stopped working, The Cloud wasn’t saving my words….. I just do not have the energy to tap into my brain again now, and Aido sent us to bed over an hour ago. I can tell you that my punchline was a Fr. Ted reference (is there any occasion on this green earth that cannot be described using a reference from good old Fr. T…), you know that one where Dougal is bothering Ted about something, so Ted says, “You know Dougal, you can even praise God by just leaving the room.”

And my parting words were…. I’m off to bed now, and I’m smiling. Healy Pass tomorrow. I will endure, and I will enjoy!

And the rest, well, sometimes it’s best to just imagine…

Still on Page 1

So, Stage 1 is over.

First the formalities….. My aim today was twofold, to stay as close to the front as possible, and to finish in the bunch.

Everyone thinks the front is safer than the middle, or the back…… so everyone wants to be at the front. Trouble is, we can’t all be at the front, there are 70 of us, the road would have to be 30m wide, and the roads around Sneem? Well they’re narrow baby, and on today’s circuit the uphill road can’t be much more than a meter across. It’s a constant battle to stay in those first 10 or 20 spots, you having to keep moving, fighting, taking chances, trying not to get trapped on the inside, chasing all the moves. It’s exhausting.

But I did  manage it, I stayed up there for 60 of today’s 66km. And the first accident of the day? Well it happened right there at the front, just to my left as we rounded the corner onto the main road first time around. I managed to avoid it, just, phew. I don’t think anyone was too hurt, thankfully. And the second crash of the day, well, it also happened just in front of me, and on the narrow uphill road, I had to unclip and steer through the brambley roadside to avoid being involved, as did two of my Cycling Leinster team mates. We were about 6km from home, and turning into a headwind, and I just couldn’t chase back on…… I tried, I really tried, but no.

So, today for me was not a success. I failed on both my aims. I now lie in 42nd place (I call it a small victory that of the 2 pages that make up the GC, I am on the first one, just.), 42 seconds down the GC going into the TT later this afternoon, I start two hours from now in fact, need to recover fast, uphill TT, tough, yeuch. I have done the force-feeding, now time to rest a little, legs up on the wall, water bottle to hand, woolly hat on.

And what else can I say about today….. the rain stayed off, there was lots of helpful cheering from the roadside, especially as we sped through Sneem village, the stage flew by. The pace was high but not ridiculous, there was very little attacking, and nothing that went away got more than 10secs before being reeled back in. It all ended in a bunch sprint, a bunch of more than 35 girls, and it’s a downhill run into the finish too…..that must have been hairy enough, maybe I should be happy I wasn’t around for that!

Banana Bread

Even though I work in a medium-sized hospital, a hospital that employs several hundred other people, the group I spend my weekdays with is relatively small. It was bigger, but “The Embargo”, natural attrition, and a level of coincidental maternity leaves that warrant a post of their own, have taken a serious toll on the numbers of my work colleagues. As it happens (and I played no role in either the retirements or the pregnancies!) I’m quite fond of the few who remain, and so, every now and then I bake stuff for them.

These treats I bring to the staff room almost always mark some little occasion, even if it’s just that we have survived another long weekend on-call without ending up in DOP (the acute psych ward on the grounds). So yesterday I made banana bread, or three very slightly different banana breads to be precise….. I am experimenting with different recipes, and the staff room critics are always quick and merciless with their reviews (The Guardian recipe won, for the record). The occasion this time is that I will be away from the department next week…… small matter of a bike race……. So, as everyone enjoys the home-baking, or does a very good job of pretending, they ask me what I’m doing for my week off. And I just say: “I’m going to Kerry”.

No matter how I feel, or how any of us who have 9th-13th September 2012 embedded in our thinking since nearly this time last year, cycling is still a minority sport here. Every single day I have taken off work this year I have spent doing something cycling related. Cycling holiday in Mallorca in March, Ras Mumhan team support at Easter, Tour of Ulster team support in May, Ras Week on the road with An Post, tweeting The Nationals, and the Suir Valley 3-Day, never mind all the events I did myself.  But I know there is just no point trying to explain Ras na mBan to people who just see bikes as a mode of transport, and there is certainly nothing to be gained in a town where hurling is the only sport and this weekend it reaches it’s climax. Mark Rohan won two paralympic hand-cycling gold medals  this week, one today, but in Kilkenny he’ll just be a guy who used to play minor football for Meath.

This evening I baked 3 more Banana Breads (all The Guardian version!). These will be travelling to Kerry with me, one has been promised to Team Ireland’s apartment, the others will be available for tasting in the Cycling Leinster apartment. And the occasion? Well, I’m off work for a week, …..and ……this weekend women’s cycling starts it’s version of The All Ireland Final, and I can’t wait to be part of it!!!!